Remembering Ryan Shay – feature from 2005

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Nov. 5, 2005, almost two years to the day before the talented distance runner died of a heart attack while competing in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in New York City.

Shay aims for better results at NYC Marathon

By Ed Odeven

Today, Ryan Shay will begin his morning like millions of other Americans — with breakfast (his usual meal: oatmeal with honey).

And then he’ll get to work.

In reality, he has no time to relax this weekend. After all, the New York City Marathon is today, and Shay will run 26.2 miles through Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island. The race ends at Central Park.

Shay finished ninth at the 2004 NYC Marathon, becoming only the fourth American in the past 11 years to place in the top 10. He ran the race in 2 hours, 14 minutes and 8 seconds. (South Africa’s Hendrik Raamala won last year’s race in 2:09.28.)

In a recent interview, Shay, who has spent much of the past several months training at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training, said he feels he’s on pace to do even better this year.

“I would like to see a minute PR (personal record) in the marathon,” he said, resting on a bench at Lumberjack Stadium. “If I can run between 2:12 and 2:13, I’d be happy.”

The ex-University of Notre Dame runner, placed 15th at the 2005 IAA World Half Marathon Championships in October in Edmonton, Alberta. It was the best-ever finish by an American male at the competition.

So how excited is he for the start of this morning’s race?

“Right now I don’t want to waste any more emotional energy than necessary,” the 26-year-old Michigan native said. “But when I actually do get to New York the excitement level will raise quite a bit. … It’s always good, exciting energy when you’re coming to New York City.”

An estimated 35,000 runners will race today, but not all of them will begin at the same time. A group of 50-100 elite runners will start before the main group.

“I think the field in New York City is a little more difficult than last year,” Shay said. “It’s going to be tougher competition. I think they recruited a few more top-quality international runners, so it’s very possible that I could run a minute faster and still place the same. … I’m a competitor so the goal of mine is to once again finish in the top 10.”

Shay runs between 120-140 miles per week. He runs on various trails and hills and also does what he calls “interval work” at Lumberjack Stadium.

“The training is going well,” he added. “I like the progress I’ve made so far.”

Perhaps the key to Shay’s excellent condition is that he doesn’t take off-days while training for a marathon.

“I won’t take any days off, but I will have a couple recovery days a week,” he said. “Typically, a recovery day will follow a hard interval day or a hard workout day will be followed by a recovery run.”

Shay’s other workout activities, including muscle-core-strengthening exercises using a physio ball, plyometric drills and the use of a speed ladder, have been done at DeRosa Physical Therapy here in town.

“Some people are like, ‘Well, why does a marathon runner need to do that?’ he said, in reference to the muscle-strengthening exercises. “Well, in the marathon you need those smaller stabilizing muscles to help support the larger muscles.”

When he begins today’s marathon, Shay, the 2003 USA Marathon champion and ’03 USA Half-Marathon winner already knows how he’ll approach the race.

“I like to not think about the race for the first half of the marathon,” he said. “I just want to get into my goal pace that I’m going to run.”

Then he said, “You get into your groove, so to speak, and then I just try to take in my surroundings to try to make the time go by a little quicker, at least for the first half of the marathon. … As you begin to hurt more, then you are focusing more on racing and it’s more of a conscious effort now to maintain pace.”

The last four miles, he continued, is when “the racing really starts. … It becomes almost a race of attrition, who can basically maintain the longest.”

In recent years, Shay has trained in Mammoth Lake, Calif., with Abdi Abdirahman, a 2000 U.S. Olympian in the 10,000 meters. The two got along well and came to Flagstaff to train together. The Center for High Altitude Training’s head coach, Dr. Jack Daniels, and Joe Vigil, the center’s senior coaching consultant, have assisted them in their training.

The two feed off each other during practices, Shay revealed.

“With Abdi training with me, I think that he’s maybe learned how to train harder, more consistent, because he always tells me I train harder than anybody he’s ever trained with,” Shay added. “And I’ve learned from Abdi basically how to stay within my limits more to be a little smarter how to push a run and when not to.

“If you want to be a good marathoner, you have to be patient and I feel I’m pretty patient. I had to learn that, though,” he continued. “I wasn’t at first. But with a marathon, it’s patience (that) goes hand in hand with emotional control.”

This means “learning not to exert all your energy too soon.”

Shay predicted that Abdirahman, who has made the jump from the 10K to marathons in recent years, can be a bona-fide threat to win the NYC Marathon today.

“If everything goes his way and he has a great race, he can win it,” Shay added. “He’s that talented and he’s put in the work. … I think for him a top-five finish is definitely reasonable.”

THE FINAL WORD

“It’s a long race. There’s so many variables. On any given day, anything can happen. … The marathon is one of the hardest events to predict a winner,” Shay said.

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Family ties: A college football player dedicated his play, life to late mother’s memory

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 5, 2005

In memory of Mom

By Ed Odeven

Receiver Geoff Ducksworth plays every game for his late mother, Andrea

Like other college football players, NAU senior receiver Geoff Ducksworth thinks about the keys to victory before every game. He remembers what his team learned about its next foe from watching film. And he knows what’ll be expected of him in the next four quarters.

Ducksworth’s pregame routine also differs from many players’.

“Before I play a football game, I point to the sky and know she’s watching before I come out the tunnel,” Ducksworth said Wednesday, revealing how he remembers his late mother on game day.

“I’m not trying to celebrate it or (want) people to think it’s a a cocky thing or some kind of showboating. I try to keep myself private in that respect. But I tell it like this: Every day I live is a representation of her and how she raised me.”

Ducksworth was born in New Orleans. His father, James, died when he was 4. His mother, Andrea, a nurse, raised him and his sisters Sara and Yvonne and brother James Jr.

They lived in Ontario, Canada, for a dozen years and later relocated to Germany before settling in the Valley of the Sun. It was there where Ducksworth came into his own as an athlete.

A 2000 graduate of Paradise Valley High School, he rushed for a school-record 1,819 yards and had a pair of 97-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns as a senior.

Fast forward to December 2002. Ducksworth was a standout receiver at Glendale Community College. His team had earned a No. 4 national ranking and went on to play in the Valley of the Sun Bowl.

As his team prepared for the bowl game, Ducksworth’s life changed drastically.

“My mom had been sick,” he recalled. “She’d been battling blood clots and things like that, so she went to the hospital and stayed the night. It was pretty much a regular occurrence for about six months, so I didn’t think too much of it.”

Then he received a shocking phone call.

“The doctor told me she had lung cancer,” he said. “My father passed away from lung cancer when I was 4 and she had quit (smoking) for about 20 years. So it took me by surprise. It just happened so quickly.

“They gave her maybe six months (to live), but they didn’t even want to guarantee that because she could’ve been gone at any time.”

TRYING TIMES

In 2003, Ducksworth planned to transfer to a university, continue his studies and play football. He had received interest from Northern Illinois and Idaho State, Southern Utah and NAU, among other schools. But when it was time to finalize his plans, Ducksworth chose NAU.

The decision was a no-brainer.

“I wanted to make sure that I could redshirt because I wanted to be with my mother every weekend as much as I could,” said Ducksworth, who was a walk-on and didn’t play in 2003.

Ducksworth’s mom stayed at a Phoenix-area hospice during her battle with cancer. He managed her account there because his older brother lives in Canada.

Besides juggling his academic workload and the physical demands of being a college football player, Ducksworth struggled with the emotional hardships of seeing his mother in pain.

“But the coaching staff was (very accommodating),” he said, “Anytime I needed, they let me go (visit her).

“My family and I, we’ve gotten a lot closer dealing with this, but it was a very, very stressful time. I had anxiety attacks and things like that.”

Through it all, Andrea Ducksworth tried to remain positive.

“She did tell me she was going to beat it,” her son said.

This outlook, he said, helped her.

“My mom, she had goals, she set goals,” he said. “She wanted to see my sister graduate and that would’ve been about eight months. She had another goal to make sure that we were all OK — that we were all going to do well for ourselves. I think when she finally realized we were all going to do all right, I think that’s when she passed away.”

“I remember she told me she was ready to go.”

She died April 8, 2004.

ON HIS OWN

Andrea Ducksworth’s death gave her younger son a chance to reflect on his upbringing, a chance to apply in his daily life what she had taught him.

“I’m not a quitter and she never raised me to be a quitter,” he said. “I stuck with it.”

For Ducksworth, this meant taking out student loans to help support him and his younger sister, Sara. It meant waking up early to study for classes. It meant working at Fry’s Food & Drug Store on Route 66 after a long day of school and practice — he unloaded the produce trucks between 6 p.m. and midnight.

“Geoff Ducksworth has had a very difficult life in my opinion,” Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers said. “Maybe nobody’s life is real easy, but his is a lot tougher than most I’ve seen, yet his attitude is unmoved.”

Last spring, the Lumberjack coaching staff gave Ducksworth a scholarship for his senior season. It’s a reminder of his importance to the team, on and off the field.

“Being independent and self-sufficient is something that he’s learned to do,” Souers said. “He has great balance of learning football’s important, but so is school and so is being a role model. It’s important to him to be a good friend, to be a good teammate. I think you’ll find the closer you look at Geoff Ducksworth you’ll find great qualities that you’d like to see in any young man.”

Gary Guthmiller, NAU’s receivers coach, said Ducksworth has been the consummate teammate and the Jacks’ most well-prepared receiver.

“I can put him anywhere on the field and expect that he knows everything that’s going to go on at every position,” Guthmiller added.

“He’s my rock. He’s the guy I can count on. He’s the guy I can trust.”

FAMILY INFLUENCES

In NAU’s 38-24 loss at Sacramento State last Saturday, Ducksworth, who also plays gunner on the punt-return unit, had a season-high three catches for 59 yards. He said it’s tough to find satisfaction from personal accomplishments because the team lost.

That said, he realizes his sticking with football was the right thing to do.

“My mom was proud of me,” he said candidly. “She let me know that for sure.”

Ducksworth’s athleticism comes from his father’s side of the family (several family members played on Southern University teams and one uncle was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals).

His mother’s interests and talents were artistic. She performed in off-Broadway musicals and took an acting class taught by famous instructor Lee Strasberg.

“She was in the same class as Marilyn Monroe,” he said, smiling.

And though she supported her son’s athletic endeavors, she also tried to give him a well-rounded childhood.

“She made sure that for every sports camp I went to I had to take pottery class or an acting class or stuff like that,” Ducksworth said.

But more than anything, Andrea Ducksworth taught her son how to endure tough times.

“I feel like I’m a strong person because of her,” he said.

Ducksworth turns 23 in November. His future is up in the air, he admits. He’s expressed interest in selling homes in the Valley or playing in the Canadian Football League.

Yet through it all, one thing remains certain:

“I’ve dedicated my life to my mom,” he said.

‘The perfect life’ (Claire Robertson, volleyball player)

This feature story on volleyball player Claire Robertson appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in June 2004.

‘THE PERFECT LIFE’
By ED ODEVEN

She lives a block from a southern California beach with her grandma. She bicycles two blocks to work at her uncle’s coffee shop in the mornings. She travels 10 minutes by bike to Hermosa Beach, where she plays volleyball in the afternoons.

Sounds like a dream routine, doesn’t it?

It is. And it’s Claire Robertson’s reality.

“It’s the perfect life for me,” said Robertson, the former Northern Arizona volleyball standout. “It’s what I’ve always dreamed of. And now I’m getting it.”

Robertson is a volleyball player on the AVP Pro Beach Tour. She’ll next compete in the Hermosa Beach Open, to be held July 22-25.

Growing up in Torrance, Calif., Robertson was a beach bum by day, beach bum by night. Thus, it’s only natural for her to continue this lifestyle.

“I’m so used to it,” she said. “I’m there every single day in the summertime. That’s why it was very hard for me to make the decision to go to NAU. But I know now I could never live in the snow. I have to live by the beach.”

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS

During her four years at NAU, Robertson made a name for herself as one of the top all-around players in the program’s history. She became the first Lumberjack to finish her career with more than 500 kills, 2,000 assists and 2,000 digs, and was the first setter in team history to record a triple-double.

The 22-year-old, who finished her collegiate career last fall, is now trying to establish herself as one of the top young players on the AVP Tour.

It’s a big adjustment, as beach volleyball is a stark contrast from the indoor game. For starters, there are only two players on the sand, as opposed to the six that play together indoors on the hardcourt.

“Beach volleyball is completely different than indoor because you have to have all of the skills — pass, serve, set, spike, all of it,” said Robertson, who split time at outside hitter, right-side hitter and setter at NAU. “You have to know how to see the whole court while you’re jumping to swing.

“There’s so much you have to change, from your approach, to your arm swing, to your quickness on the sand,” she added, “because you don’t really move well in the sand. You have to get your sand legs developed first before you even play in the tournament. I sort of learned that when I played in Tempe (in late April).”

In the Tempe Open, Robertson and then-partner Patti Scofield finished 37th overall. They won a first-round match in three games over Michelle Moore and Suzanne Stonebarger, but dropped their next one to Kimberly Coleman and Julie Sprague.

Robertson teamed up with Alyssa Rylander for the Manhattan Beach (Calif.) Open the first weekend of June. They placed 41st, winning their first-round match and dropping the next, which eliminated them from the tourney.

A NEW PARTNER

Since the Manhattan Beach Open, Robertson has been playing with Keao (KAY-ow) Burdine, a senior-to-be at the University of Southern California and a two-time NCAA championship MVP.

In case you’re wondering, there were no 11th-hour negotiations at a secret location, no heated discussions between agents before the change. The partnership, in fact, is quite informal.

“I get to pick who I want to play with,” was how Robertson described the agreement.

Burdine watched Robertson play in the Manhattan Beach tournament and called to inquire about forming a team.

The two said OK and that was the end of the discussion.

They trained three days together before competing in the San Diego Open, which was held June 11-13, placing 25th, the highest finish of Robertson’s young career (she made her pro debut at the 2003 San Diego Open).

“We just play well together,” Robertson said of she and Burdine. “…But one thing we have to work on is communication. She tends to be the more quiet player on the court and I tend to be the more loud one. But she’s definitely the more powerful hitter. She can pound the ball. It’s good. It fires me up.”

Burdine said that Robertson’s “been the best partner I’ve had so far playing on the beach. It’s been fun. She’s very feisty and really wants to win. She’s really competitive. She has really good ball-control skills.”

The 5-foot-9 Robertson and the 6-1 Burdine complement each other with their varied skills. While Burdine is wreaking havoc at the net, Robertson is the steady defensive force in the background.

Robertson and Burdine will next play in the aforementioned Hermosa Beach Open. “That’s the big one,” Robertson said.

In the meantime, they’ll continue to work on getting better by playing in AVP Next events, the association’s semi-pro circuit, like they did last weekend in Santa Barbara, Calif.

ON THE BEACH

As a teen-ager, Robertson began competing on the amateur beach volleyball circuit, working her way up the ladder from the unrated classification to B, AA, AAA, and, finally, the semi-pro level.

In 2001, Robertson and Tawny Schulte, who starred for Wake Forest, competed in the Junior Olympics in Australia. They earned one of the two coveted women’s berths to the international tournament — two U.S. men’s teams also went.

Robertson and Schulte placed fifth overall behind a pair of Mexican teams, the other U.S. team and the Chinese champions. They had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend the week in an Australian monastery in Manley Beach.

All in all, Robertson said the trip was an eye-opener for her, a reminder that she was indeed a talented player.

“It was an amazing experience. After that, I knew I could do it,” she said.

Now that she’s doing it, Robertson is eager to become one of the best, but the financial constraints of not yet earning prize money on the tour limit how many tournaments she can compete in.

In the future, Robertson said she’ll need to get a sponsor to help pay for “my plane tickets, all my bathing suits and stuff like that.”

Advancing out of the qualifying round will be key to attracting sponsors. Currently, Robertson cannot afford a personal coach, but she said it’ll be beneficial in the future.

For now, she soaks up all the knowledge offered by her many friends who play on the tour, including Sean Rosenthal and Larry Litt, who are currently ranked No. 3 on the AVP men’s tour.

And she’s on the beach as much as possible. Besides serious training “three hours a day, four days a week,” there are plenty of impromptu games at Hermosa Beach. All it takes is a simple phone call.

“We’ll call up a team and say, ‘We’re meeting down at the pier at four o’clock, can you come play? ‘Yes, we’ll bring our balls, our lines and our antennas,'” Robertson said, recounting countless conversations. “And we’ll just play a couple games. It’s pretty cool, because everyone on the tour is really young and everyone knows each other, so if they want to train you can just call them up and play.”

Robertson will fulfill her educational obligations to NAU — she’s a health promotion/secondary education major — by student-teaching at a Flagstaff school, starting Aug. 30. After that, she said the goal is to become one of the top 32 players on the ultra-competitive tour.

“I haven’t played anyone really good yet,” she said, sounding clearly motivated to erase that fact from her resume. “Playing top 25 teams will be really exciting.”

That said, Robertson enjoys the competitive nature of the tour.

“These girls are so competitive because they are playing for money. … It’s like hard-core money. It’s so serious,” she said, referring to tandems like Misty May and Kerri Walsh, who split $14,500 for winning the Tempe Open.

She was asked if she can make a good living playing on the beach.

“That’s been my goal since I was young,” she said. “You can make a decent amount of money. You’ve just got to win.”

Then you take a break and relax. After all, you’re already at the beach.

If you’re Claire Robertson, there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.

Feature flashback – NAU safety (and future NFL DB) Jeremy Thornburg

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: A humble leader

Nov. 10, 2004

By Ed Odeven

Many football players would brag about making a game-high 17 tackles. That’s just not Jeremy Thornburg’s style.

A soft-spoken, hard-hitting strong safety, Thornburg is driven to play what he calls “the perfect football game.” His 17-tackle outing against the Montana Grizzlies last Saturday wasn’t perfect.

Here’s the Northern Arizona senior’s explanation:

“I had 22 chances to make tackles, and I missed five.”

The personal assessment continues.

“After the Montana game, people came up to me like, ‘Great job, 17 tackles.’ But I was disappointed because I missed five tackles, you know,” he added. “That was my season high in tackles and missed tackles.”

In a season of ups and downs, Thornburg has been the steady anchor for the Lumberjack secondary. He leads the team with 76 tackles (37 solo stops), has broken up six passes, forced three fumbles and made three sacks.

All-conference-type numbers are nice, but victories are much more important to a consummate competitor like Thornburg.

“I think we’re not playing up to our standards at all,” he said after Tuesday’s practice at the Skydome. “We should be giving up 17 points or less a game. That’s our team goal. We’re not doing that at all.”

Opponents are scoring 27.2 points per game against the 4-5 Jacks, who travel to Idaho State for their final Big Sky Conference game of the season Saturday.

In recent weeks, the Lumberjack defense has felt the sting of losing three starters — linebackers Bruce Branch and Ian Gunderman and cornerback Shannon Butler — for the season. In their absence, Thornburg has picked up the slack — on the field and in the leadership department.

He’s had to do a lot more, right? a reporter asked linebacker Sean Sovacool.

“He can handle that, though. He’s a great player,” Sovacool said. “He’s one of the best I’ve ever played with. He’s real active, real energetic, real enthusiastic. I love to watch ‘Burg play and play with him.”

“He’s kind of the guy that brings our secondary together,” added sophomore free safety Jeffrey Wheeler. “He’s also the leader, showing by example, the way he plays on the field and the way he acts off the field. He’s just an all-around great guy.”

Play after play, you’ll see Thornburg’s versatility and instincts on display. He’ll blitz the quarterback on one play, make a diving pass deflection on the next, and follow that up with a drive-the-ballcarrier-back-to-the-line tackle.

In other words, Thornburg possesses the ideal physical qualities to be a strong safety.

“(At that position) you just have to have the speed of a corner and the tenacity of a linebacker and that’s hard to find,” Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers said.

NAU found their man in Cathedral City, Calif., where Thornburg lettered three years in football, two in basketball and four in track before graduating in 2000. He also received attention from San Diego State, Colorado State and Utah.

Each year, Thornburg’s numbers — and productivity — have improved. He played in 10 games as a freshman in 2000 and made 10 tackles. He became the starter the next year and collected 52 tackles. After sitting out the 2002 season with a shoulder injury, he returned to the starting lineup last year and made 92 stops, picked off four passes and earned honorable mention all-Big Sky accolades.

In his spare time, the liberal studies major has become one of the Big Sky’s best hurdlers, sprinters and jumpers (he qualified for the 2003 and ’04 NCAA West Regional Championships in the long jump, and was a member of the ’03 Big Sky-winning 4×400-meter outdoor relay unit).

“I think Jeremy has gone through a lot in his experience here,” Souers said. “I think he’s matured a bunch. He’s always been a talented athlete. As talented as he is, you never sense an ego problem. … He’s been a team guy from Day One.

“He’s definitely one of those ‘quiet killers.’ … And I don’t mean to make light of murder or anything like that at all, but he’s a guy you won’t hear coming and when he blitzes and when he covers with support on the run and on special teams (look out).”

When the season concludes, the 6-foot, 190-pound Thornburg will hit the weight room and begin training with the Lumberjack track and field squad, preparing for an opportunity to play football professionally.

“I think track will help me make it to the next level,” he said. “I’ve heard some things from coaches that the scouts are interested in me.

“It doesn’t matter where I play,” was how Thornburg described his post-NAU aspirations. “I just want to play football.”

Thornburg said being a part of NAU’s upset of No. 1 McNeese State in the playoffs last year and an exciting comeback triumph over Portland State in October were two of his favorite games. Another personal favorite: he showed his pure athleticism against Portland State, making a 42-yard reception in the first half, thanks to a well-placed ball by Philo Sanchez, a running back.

Since being an all-conference linebacker/receiver at Cathedral City High, Thornburg has not played many snaps on offense. He’s lined up for a few plays there this season, which, naturally, got him thinking about what might’ve been.

“I feel that if I ever did play offense in the Big Sky I could’ve been an all-Big Sky receiver,” he said.

“My freshman year, I was happy playing defense, and as time goes on you miss the other side of the ball. If I was playing offense, I’d probably be saying the opposite.”

Next year, the Lumberjacks will miss having Thornburg in the lineup. But they are preparing for the future, with freshman Greg Laybourn waiting in the wings.

“I think having Jeremy around, he’s just been the perfect leader by example to show me how things are done,” Laybourn said. “He was in a similar situation to what I’m in now. He came in and played a little bit his freshman year and then started his sophomore year, and that’s what I’m hoping to do.

“Hopefully I can duplicate the aggressive style that he plays.”

And after his playing days are over, Thornburg hopes he’s left a legacy for NAU fans and players.

“I think they’ll say they like the way I played because I like playing hard every play, sprinting to the ball and using my speed,” he said. “I like getting big hits occasionally.”

What do those characteristics add up to?

“He’s just a great football player,” Souers concluded.

You just won’t hear those words coming out of Thornburg’s mouth.

Column flashback – NAU ice hockey

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

CAPLE BIG PART OF NAU’S HOCKEY SUCCESS

September 19, 2003

By Ed Odeven/Odds and Evens

A large group of ex-NAU hockey players is holding a reunion this weekend in Flagstaff. It’s a chance for the players to reminisce about their days as teammates and buddies. But more important, it’s a chance for them to honor the man who started the NAU hockey program: Dr. Jerry Caple, a former NAU chemistry professor.

Caple, an International Falls, Minn., native, arrived in Flagstaff in 1966. Five years later, he was convinced NAU should have a club hockey team.

“I got on the phone, wrote some letters and students organized a club,” Caple said during a phone conversation earlier this week.

The club played its first game on Dec. 1, 1971, against the University of Colorado and lost 11-1. The next day it lost 22-0.

NAU was not a doormat team for long. After losing seasons in their first two years of existence, the Lumberjacks posted a 20-3-2 record in 1973-74, the first of five straight 20-win seasons. Before the Skydome opened, the club played outdoors at the Flagstaff Municipal Ice Arena (now called the Jay Lively Activity Center), where “during a game on Cedar Street the place would just get filled up with people there on the snowbanks,” Caple recalled, estimating that 1,500 to 2,000 people would go watch the club squad.

“We built a great ‘club dynasty’ with guys from the Midwest, Chicago and Minnesota, Western Canada, California, as well as guys like myself from Phoenix,” said Fox Sports Arizona broadcaster Kevin McCabe, a former NAU defenseman (1977-81).

Indeed NAU hockey carved out a special following in this town. It was “a hockey program that got reasonably good,” said Caple, who retired as coach after the 1975-76 season but remained the team’s faculty adviser for years. Nowadays, he teaches chemistry at the University of South Dakota.

Jimmy Peters, an ex-NHL player, took over as coach in 1976 and the team continued to flourish. That team finished with a 22-0-1 record. A year later, the Lumberjacks took on the Phoenix Roadrunners, a highly successful Pacific Coast League team and lost 5-3. The game, which attracted a crowd of 4,000 spectators at the Skydome, was tied 3-all in the third period.

“It was a loss, but really a kind of victory,” said Caple, who was also the driving force behind the establishment of the Flagstaff Youth Hockey Association.

In 1981, the program became a varsity team and remained a varsity team, featuring standouts like longtime NHL forward Greg Adams, who led the NCAA in scoring in 1983-84 with 44 goals in 26 games, until it folded in 1986.

Two factors led to the end of Division I hockey at NAU:

In 1986, the Skydome’s rink needed expensive repairs, which were estimated to be at least $1 million to fix. Plus, the state of Arizona cut university funding by 6 percent that year.

NAU restarted the varsity squad and it lasted from 1991 until ’95.

Instead of focusing on what-ifs, i.e., if NAU still had a varsity team, the theme of this weekend is honoring Dr. Caple. And that’s how it should be.

“We the recipients of Dr. Caple’s hard work will attend and honor him (this) weekend, and for me it has been a long time coming,” said Mike “Lumpy” Lemire, an ex-NAU goaltender (1973-75) from Calgary, Alberta. “Jerry’s time, effort and dedication to the hockey program has allowed individuals such as myself to acquire a post-secondary education and further my career. We have taken away great memories and lifelong friendships which I cherish 30 years later.”

Many others fondly remember Dr. Caple’s dedication to the team, including Doug Allan.

“At the beginning of my third year playing with the NAU Hockey Club (79-80) our coach, Jimmy Peters, could not attend our activities for the first few week,” said Allan, an ex-NAU goalie, coach and publicist. “We could not practice or play in the Dome because NAU football was still in season. The best time for us to practice was early in the morning, during the week, at the Flagstaff Municipal Ice Arena. So the only way for us to practice was to have Dr. Caple, who was still the club adviser, open the rink at 6 a.m.

“This memory is still vivid for me. As we skated laps attempting to warm up, I can still see ‘the Cape’ pacing back and forth, in the area adjacent to the boards. Meanwhile his three daughters, all elementary school age, were in the lobby waiting for their Dad to take them to school. Mrs. Caple, (Sharon) due to her responsibilities as a teacher, had already commuted to Tuba City that morning.

“I thought to myself, Dr. Caple and his family are making a huge sacrifice, which allowed us to play hockey at NAU. Here he was, having his children get up early, then get ready for school, then come to rink, then head for school. Not many folks would have made that commitment … and he did it for 10 years!”

Dr. Caple deserves this special weekend. He has earned it.

A 2003 Thanksgiving football tale

As the Northern Arizona University (NAU) football beat writer, this was a fun story to write, highlighting an ex-Lumberjack’s NFL rookie experience just before Thanksgiving.

PERSEVERANCE PAYS OFF FOR O’NEIL

November 28, 2003

Ed Odeven
Arizona Daily Sun

Twenty-two free agents showed up at the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp this past summer in San Antonio. Two of them are now on the Cowboys’ roster. Ex-NAU standout linebacker Keith O’Neil is one of them.

O’Neil had a splendid senior season at NAU in 2002, earning All-Big Sky first team accolades and a spot on Football Gazette’s All-America third team.

When he arrived in Dallas, though, the former Lumberjack was just another rookie, an undrafted free-agent one at that. He knew the odds of making the team were against him, but he didn’t back down from anybody.

“I went into the camp not knowing anything, from the defense, to the practice schedule, to what it was going to be like to play on this team,” O’Neil told me in a phone conversation earlier this week. “This year, I was trying to make the team. … Next year, I have to stay on the team.”

Will it get an easier next year?

“It’s going to be just as intense next year,” O’Neil insisted, “because I’m not a starting linebacker. I didn’t sign a big contract. Year to year, I’m going to have to fight my way.”

“You’re going to have to fight it out every day to stay in this league, but I’m up for that. I enjoy competition.”

He also enjoys playing for the ultra-competitive Bill Parcells, Dallas’ first-year head man who had turned around moribund franchises at every stop in his illustrious coaching career (New York Giants, New England Patriots and New York Jets).

“Playing for Coach Parcells has definitely been a great opportunity,” said O’Neil, whose father Edward starred as a Penn State gridder. “I’ve learned a lot from him about football and mostly the ins and outs that a lot of coaches, I think, overlook.”

Such as?

Parcells, O’Neil revealed, likes to point out the importance of playing all three phases of the game. For instance, if you score a special teams touchdown, “you’re going to win 83 percent of the time. If you score on defense, that team’s going to win 75 percent of the time. … He says things like that all the time,” O’Neil said.

Now that he’s had a few months to understand the aura of Parcells, O’Neil is just as impressed with his coach as many others around the league, and it’s no surprise that he’s developed a lot of respect for his boss.

“Being a rookie, I’d never played for another head coach at the professional level,” O’Neil said. “I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew he was one of the greatest coaches ever, and I think we are where we are because of him.”

Despite Thursday’s subpar effort, a 40-21 loss to the Miami Dolphins, the Cowboys are 8-4 this season and in the hunt for the NFC East title — certainly a far cry from their three previous 5-11 campaigns.

“I think coaching definitely had something to do with it,” O’Neil said. “I think a lot of us players not only don’t want to let ourselves down, but we’re playing because we don’t want to let (Parcells) down. I think half of us are probably scared, too.”

The 6-foot, 230-pound O’Neil, who wears No. 54, has been a mainstay on special teams for Dallas this season — he’s played every down on special teams. On the other hand, he’s only played one snap at linebacker.

Some players might sulk about such a situation. O’Neil simply vows to work harder.

“Right now I know my role: to be the best on special teams, ” he said.

It did take time for O’Neil to get adjusted to his role. He hadn’t been a special teams guy since his freshman and sophomore years at NAU. As a junior and senior, of course, he never left the field when NAU was on defense.

Now, he’s just happy to be contributing for a winning NFL team. Last Sunday he made a tackle on punt return coverage inside the 10-yard line against Carolina, pinning a Panther deep in Carolina territory. Another play that stands out in his mind was a tackle during the Monday Night Football game in Week 2 against the Giants.

“I couldn’t be happier for him, because he couldn’t be more dedicated to being successful,” NAU linebackers coach Greg Lees said Wednesday. “He’s just a guy that cares so much. You know over time he’s going to be successful.”

Reflecting on this season and getting the opportunity to play in the national spotlight on Thanksgiving, it’s no surprise that there’s a hint of satisfaction in O’Neil’s voice. After all, he’s living out his boyhood dream.

“It’s football and turkey, and just being able to play for the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving is amazing,” O’Neil said. “I never would’ve thought a year ago I would be playing for the Cowboys.”

Just because he is a Cowboy doesn’t mean he now has a wild, extravagant lifestyle. Nope. O’Neil is being smart about his future. He bought himself a truck. He’s put most of the remainder of his salary in to a savings account.

“I don’t go out and party, believe it or not,” O’Neil said. “I come home and I’m tired. It’s work. It’s not that show on TV, ‘Playmakers.’ Especially for a rookie in my situation, I have nowhere to mess up. I go in every day focused. College was fun; this is work. I’m enjoying it. I love playing in the NFL, but a lot of people don’t realize it’s a business. It’s tough.”

And that’s the attitude you need to succeed — and remain — in the NFL.

Column flashback … Simirone Wade

Wade finds solace on gridiron

By Ed Odeven
Sports column
(Published in the Arizona Daily Sun on Sept. 24, 2004)

It’s easy to forget that football is only a game. We become so passionate about rooting for our favorite players and teams that we can get so caught up in the emotional highs and lows of a game and its outcome that we treat it as a life-or-death situation.

It isn’t.

For many players, coaches, fans and media members, football is an outlet for fun, a once-a-week shindig that becomes an integral part of their lives. Sometimes it’s much more than that. For Northern Arizona junior receiver Simirone Wade, football has become a respite from tough personal times he’s encountered in 2004.

Wade’s maternal grandfather, Elmer “Bud” Daniels, recently passed away in Albuquerque, N.M. Daniels’ passing marked the seventh death in the last eight months in Wade’s family. He’s also mourned the deaths of aunts, uncles and cousins this year.

Though he has practiced, Wade didn’t play in NAU’s first two games of 2004, road games against Arizona and Stephen F. Austin.

“We had some important games that we had to play but I couldn’t be there,” Wade says. “It burned me but I’m back now.

“I went through some personal things that brought me away from football. I had to make some challenging decisions in my life. That’s when I was dealing with my family. I was going through some bad times.”

Through it all, Wade remains committed to being the best college football player he can be.

Wade says he practiced “to keep my mind off it, because if you just sit and think about what’s going on in your life it’s just going to bring yourself down. My antidote was just to come to practice and be with the team … the family that I’m here with.

“This is the thing I love to do: play football. Even though I couldn’t play in the games, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t practice and be with the team. That’s why I was still practicing.”

One may naturally wonder if Wade, a 2001 graduate of Glendale Ironwood High School, is ready to step onto the field this season, starting with today’s Big Sky Conference opener against Weber State, but he says leaving school was never an option.

“I never contemplated really quitting,” he says, “but my mind was in all different places and it came down to my parents. They are my heart. When they suffer, I suffer, and that was drawing me away from football.

“My No. 1 priority is God and then my family and then football, of course, so when my family’s hurting that affects me and that affects me on the field. … I had to take care of my family before I can take care of what’s on the field.”

Football is “just a talent that I have, but my family’s my backbone. They are there when I haven’t played and they are there when I play.”

Together, the Wade family supported one another through these hard times. But death after death took an emotional toll on all of them.

“We couldn’t heal,” Wade says. “We were just getting off of one death and then another one would pop up unexpectedly and we were just … going through a time in our lives that was a black hole.

“We are healing right now, and life goes on and life doesn’t stop for nobody.”

There’s a biblical passage Wade recites — “We may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning.” — that comforts him through times of grief.

“We may go through whatever the devil’s trying to put on us,” he says, explaining the passage. “He may take us through all these trials and tribulations, but it’s like a storm and storms pass over. They never stay.

“For the time being, while … it’s pouring, people are like, ‘It’s raining. Oh my gosh, I can’t wait for the sun to come back.’ But eventually the sun does come back and we are all happy again.”

It’s quite clear Wade understands the value of life and is wise beyond his years.

“This has definitely humbled me,” he says. “It shows me that everything on this earth is material, and material things can be replaced but your family can’t.”

Simirone’s parents, Thomas and Cynthia Wade, will be at today’s game. His brother, Edwin “B.J.” Bell, and sister, Talya “Shay” Wade, many cousins and a large group of friends, ex-teachers and ex-classmates from Phoenix and Tucson, where he was born, will be there. And Wade’s beloved grandfather will be at the Skydome in spirit.

“This game is dedicated to him,” he says. “And I know that he’s going to be hearing me in the stands. I’m going to show up not only for everybody in the stands but … him, too.”

Maybe today’s NAU-Weber State clash isn’t just a game. For Wade, it’s become a source of solace and inspiration.